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Church Struggles For Unity

Topics For Synod Show UCC Tensions

June 17, 2007
By ELIZABETH HAMILTON, Courant Staff Writer

When more than 10,000 clergy and parishioners from the United Church of Christ converge on Hartford this week for their General Synod, at least half of the dozen resolutions they'll consider will deal with issues of social justice - a more humane immigration policy, a worldwide ban on depleted uranium weapons, support of physician-assisted suicide.

In other words, bread and butter issues for a mainline denomination, known by most as the Congregational Church, that has come to be associated with its progressive - some would say liberal - stance on controversial topics like gay marriage and abortion rights.

But sandwiched between those resolutions is an almost equal number of proposals that illustrate the cost the UCC has paid for its strong social justice component.

These resolutions, which come from conferences in the Midwest and South, range from calls to "vehemently affirm" that marriage is a God-ordained relationship between a man and a woman to more measured proposals suggesting ways to keep conservative congregations from leaving the UCC.

Since the last General Synod, in 2005, when more than 80 percent of delegates voted to endorse gay marriage, at least 220 churches have left the denomination, according to Faithful and Welcoming Churches of the United Church of Christ, an organization whose stated goal is keeping estranged churches from bailing out of the UCC.

The UCC disputes these numbers, and said only 160 churches have left the denomination since 2005, and only 90 of those specifically cited the marriage resolution as their reason for leaving.

Whatever the number, it doesn't change the underlying truth that the UCC, much like the Episcopal Church of America, is struggling to keep its family intact as it grapples with questions about its own identity.

The Rev. Bob Thompson, president of Faithful and Welcoming and pastor of the Corinth Reform Church in Hickory, N.C., said many conservative churches are distressed by the UCC's "liberal agenda" because they believe it has strayed from biblical authority.

"I think it's fairly clear from the UCC's pronouncements over the last 20 years or so that General Synod and the leadership would probably proudly own the label of liberal and progressive. So there's your disconnect," Thompson said. "Our guide as a Christian church is Scripture, and Scripture is fairly clear that sexual activity is for marriage between a man and a woman. We don't have the prerogative of dismissing Scripture."

Thompson helped author one of the resolutions reaffirming the UCC's "classical and centrist theological heritage," because, he said, he is concerned that church leaders are out of touch with the denomination's 5,000-plus U.S. churches and in denial about how serious the problem is.

That said, Thompson does not want to see the UCC divided. That's why he helped create the Faithful and Welcoming group, so that churches like his own would have a place within the UCC where they felt accepted.

"We feel we have a place here and that our place needs to be affirmed and noted within the UCC, but it certainly is grievous to us when others choose to leave," he said.

United Church of Christ leaders say the problem has been overstated by Thompson and others.

"We grieve even the loss of a single congregation, but want to keep the perspective that this is not some sort of cataclysmic, widely pervasive reality throughout the United Church of Christ," said Bob Chase, spokesman for the UCC. "I think we have weathered this storm."

The Rev. Davida Foy Crabtree, who heads the Connecticut conference, expressed frustration that the issue was still being discussed by the media. There are 244 UCC churches in Connecticut.

"In Connecticut most of our churches have worked their way through these issues and are staying in relationship with each other," Foy Crabtree said.

Foy Crabtree also disputed Thompson's characterization of the UCC as a politically liberal organization, and said debates about how Scripture should be interpreted are common in the life of the church.

The UCC, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this summer, was formed in 1957 by four groups - the Congregational and Christian churches, which joined together in 1931, and the German Reformed and German Evangelical churches, which also merged into one group in the 1930s.

"I think the church of Jesus Christ calls us to be in communion with each other even when we disagree," she said. "The things that hold us together are far stronger than the things that break us apart."

In Connecticut, one of the strongest conferences in the UCC, four churches have left the denomination since 2005, according to Faithful and Welcoming - First Congregational Church in Torrington; Stanwich Congregational Church in Greenwich; Poquonock Community Church in Windsor; and the Stafford Springs Congregational Church.

Although their reasons were probably more complex than just a simple opposition to the marriage resolution - some of the churches refused to discuss their reasons for leaving the UCC - it is clear that they are at odds with the denomination over substantive issues.

At the First Congregational Church in Torrington, for example, the 2005 marriage resolution occurred shortly after members voted 36-4 to leave the UCC, but church members knew it was coming. The resolution was the final straw, said the Rev. Steven Darr, pastor of the Torrington church.

"We had been watching the UCC for a while and their move away from biblical authority," Darr said. "Abortion, same-sex marriage - those were issues we didn't feel were debatable."

Some members left the church after the vote, but Darr said that far more - about 40 people - have joined as word spread that First Congregational was no longer with the UCC.

Although the UCC is not a hierarchical institution - churches are free to hire their own ministers and don't have to adhere to pronouncements from the state or national conferences - it is clear from interviews with churches that have chosen to stay in the UCC that there is considerable ambivalence in some corners about what the denomination represents.

Just because a church stays, in other words, doesn't mean its members agree with the UCC or that they haven't struggled, sometimes with no real outcome, to decide where they fit within the denomination.

Open, Affirming?

Even in the blue state of Connecticut - the bastion of Congregationalism - this is an issue that churches are grappling with.

A time when many congregations first confront their place within the UCC is when they decide whether they want to become "open and affirming." Churches that are designated open and affirming in the UCC have publicly declared themselves welcoming to gay, lesbian and bisexual members, leaders and employees.

At the First Congregational Church in Woodbury, a parish that dates from the formation of the town in 1670, the debate over whether to become "open and affirming" proved too difficult.

Mark Heilshorn, pastor of the Woodbury Church for the past 11 years, was blunt about how divisive the process was for his congregation. Particularly unpleasant was the day he invited a biblical scholar from Hartford Seminary to come speak with church members.

"It was kind of a hostile afternoon," Heilshorn said. "He did a good job keeping a lid on it, but there were people in the room saying, `Why do we need to go down this road?'"

After six months of discussion, when tensions were high and "people were getting into their corners," the church deacons met to decide what to do next. They couldn't reach a consensus.

"They really chose not to choose. They said it just appears to us that the church is not mature enough to make this decision," Heilshorn said. "Nevertheless, what I came away with was a feeling that the church did the best it could with a very volatile subject."

At Asylum Hill Congregational Church in Hartford, however, the experience was smoother.

Asylum Hill, with 1,800 members, became open and affirming last year, said the Rev. Peter Grandy, senior associate pastor. The church, which had already hired a lesbian pastor and had numerous gay and lesbian members, appointed a committee and spent two years on the process.

"We thought it was time we should publicly say this," Grandy said.

The members of Broadbrook Congregational Church in Ellington, however, haven't even considered becoming open and affirming, said the Rev. Joseph Callahan, their pastor. Nor have they discussed leaving the UCC.

"They are very Congregational and they tend to be conservative. They're not going to leave [the UCC]," said Callahan, a former detective for Scotland Yard and a former Catholic. "They're just going to ignore it."

But they did take a quick, unemotional vote not to endorse gay marriage.

Bob Jones, who at 47 describes himself as "in the younger crowd" at the church, said the vote was unanimous and without any hostility or bad feelings.

"The gay marriage thing was a no-brainer," said Jones, a deacon of the church. "First of all, it's still illegal in the state of Connecticut. The civil union thing, well, in a way our church feels that what you do in your house is your own business. I think we'd take that on a case-by-case basis."

Over at the Trumbull Congregational Church, where the Rev. Matthew Braddock has been pastor since 2004, the church has simply chosen not to deal with the gay marriage question, or the option of being open and affirming.

"I think we're at a funny time right now in the life of this congregation and it probably mirrors what happens in a lot of mainline churches," Braddock said. "Generally speaking, people in older generations don't want to hear about `open and affirming' stuff.

"There's really some ambivalence in this church about their relationship with the UCC," Braddock said. "They realize they get a lot from it, but this church feels so strongly autonomous. They're reluctant UCCers, I guess."

Arguing about homosexuality is the "issue du jour," Braddock said, because the "liberal side of the church makes it a social justice issue while the conservative side of the church makes it an issue of biblical authority."

Historical Roots

Those who leave the UCC over issues like gay rights say they are simply staying true to the church's origins.

Those who champion those issues say the same thing.

And both sides can look to the church's history to find evidence for their position.

So how did a branch of Christianity remembered for its strong sense of original sin and control of communal behavior - the Puritans - end up with the slogan, "No matter who you are or where you are on life's journey, you're welcome here?"

"I think there were a number of small steps, but the biggest was slavery," said Barbara Brown Zikmund, a church historian and the former president of Hartford Seminary.

Brown Zikmund said the original Congregationalists, who traced their roots to the Puritans, were quite pious and felt a "keen responsibility" to live a good life. This could be seen in their relationship with the Native Americans who lived among them, she said, by establishing "praying towns" where the natives could be converted to Christianity.

"There was racism that was embedded in their consciousness," she said. "But they didn't say, `To hell with them.' The social witness was there."

By 1820, Congregationalists had carried this sense of responsibility "to all God's creatures," to include African slaves. A defining moment in the church is when Congregationalists and other Christians organized a campaign to free the African slaves who were captured after they seized control of the schooner Amistad. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled that the captives were not property.

Because of the various histories and philosophies of the four groups that formed the UCC, the denomination is a complex mix of people and churches, but it is also one that can boast a long list of "firsts" - from John Robinson, the pastor who urged the Pilgrims to leave Holland for religious freedom in the New World, to Lemuel Haynes and Antoinette Brown, the first African American and first woman, respectively, ordained by a Protestant denomination.

Foy Crabtree said Brown's ordination in 1853 is an example of the church's resiliency and its willingness, over time, to accept change.

"It created this furor. She was the brunt of jokes and cartoonists," Foy Crabtree said. "But the church was right and in time people came to understand that."

The social witness component is part of what drew Braddock, the pastor from Trumbull, to a UCC church after he was ordained in the Presbyterian Church.

"I love that they're willing to take stands on these issues," Braddock said. "But I think the church struggles with it. The UCC, for years, has been saying that the way to renewal is through justice. But there are a lot of churches who are very engaged in hands-on social justice issues that aren't growing.

"Social justice needs to be linked with contemplation," he added. "And when you do one without the other, we lack balance."

Church leaders believe that balance will become apparent in time.

The debate over gay marriage "is not a new phenomenon and we have held together through a lot of change," Foy Crabtree said. "It's not about partisan politics. It's about God's politics. To me, that's the spirit of the UCC. The whole notion that we are always people on a journey."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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